Thresholds - Chapter 3
Extreme cannibalism is one the most troubling side effects of the drug that was developed to prevent the extinction of humanity.
There weren’t many of the cadaverous cannibals this far north since they hated the cold. Blaire had to lure this one from the ruins of a neighboring resort. She’d gotten well ahead of it on her snowmobile, but the pepsies, as everyone called them, were incredibly fast. Blaire jumped off immediately after driving across the snow-covered lake and parked on the indistinguishable shore behind a copse of Patten pear trees.
Everyone on Earth had been exposed to the virus-delivered drug, Eupepsid. Governments worldwide pumped it into the air, giving starving people the ability to slow their metabolisms so a single meal could last as long as twenty. Unsurprisingly, a more significant percentage of the population than predicted sped their metabolic processes up to lose weight or improve workouts. This subgroup eventually exhausted their ability to regulate, turning into spindly gluttons overnight.
It didn’t take long for the emaciated woman to appear, running full tilt in ski boots and a hot pink, thinsulated snowsuit that would have been formfitting before she turned. The chest area was stained dark brown.
“I’ll bet she ruined everybody’s holiday, Em,” Blaire whispered without taking her eyes off the macabre snow bunny.
The runner followed the parallel tracks halfway across the small lake without slowing.
“A little closer… and… NOW!”
Blaire tugged hard on her bungeed lasso and pressed a remote detonator, setting off charges she’d placed at strategic points around the frozen pond. The snow bunny disappeared through the ice.
“Alright. Let’s go fishing.”
Once the creature was secured to the skimobile’s sled and covered, Blaire mounted, scooting forward to make space. “Watch my back in case our friend wakes up.” She was met with stony silence.
By the time they arrived at the mobile home/makeshift lab, Blaire lost it. “Emerson,” she all but screamed, wheeling around at the front door, “I know it’s dangerous, but how can I save anyone if I can’t find a better cure?”
Nothing. Exasperated, Blaire stormed into the trailer.
“A better cure?” said the coifed businessman seated in her desk chair. “I found your notes, Blaire. Seems you already created one that works just fine.” He casually rose and stepped in front of her, “I want it.”
“Go to hell, Duncan.”
Two men in black fatigues flanked her, shoving her back outside. Blaire’s former friend and boss exited behind them. Scanning the barren landscape, punctuated only by the black snowmobile, Duncan asked, “Who were you talking to?”
At first, George was annoyed at having to babysit. Watching Allison’s soft pink lips wrap themselves around a forkful of dry cafeteria chocolate cake as though it were made of the finest dark cocoa? Well, that made babysitting a little more tolerable.
“Have another bite,” he said diffidently. “We drew kind of a ridiculous amount of blood.”
She did, feeling steadied by the sugar and intoxicated by the decadence in her mouth.
“Grandma and I have lived off rations and whatever we could grow for like a decade. This is marvelous.”
He was surprised by the disappointment that washed over him when she swallowed the last bite because he’d been enjoying her overt pleasure so immensely. Allison was gorgeous, but beyond that, she radiated an inquisitiveness and innocence that made him want to show her the world and protect her from it. His wrist vibrated.
George ebbed from elation to confusion reading the notification:
Antiviral - Positive; Commence Phase II; 6 pt bld required stat
“What is it?” Allison inquired, concerned. “Your face just fell off a cliff.”
“Come with me; I need to check something.”
Most of Daedalus Pharmaceutical’s operations were confined to the top floors of its largely abandoned headquarters. George led his charge upstairs, through the phlebotomy suite where he’d initially drawn her miracle blood, toward the medical ward. He was marching ahead brusquely when Allison stopped.
The sight beyond the plexiglass wall had become rote for him, but of course, it would astonish a farm girl. Two haggard men and a petite blond woman were shackled in containment units, staring hungrily with bulging, reddened eyes. They stood with every sinewy muscle tightened, methodically working their jaws.
“They can’t see us. Do you want to stay here a minute?”
“You don’t mind? I’ve never seen one in person.”
“Not at all. Be right back.”
George reached the exam room Daedalus’s CEO seemed to frequent lately and knocked timidly on the door.
Duncan poked his head out, “Yes?”
“Her bloodwork checks out, sir.”
“Wonderful. Move ahead with Phase Two.”
“But, sir, I can easily replicate the antiviral sequence with what’s already been drawn. Why are we… exsanguinating her?”
A hoarse, garbled scream came from behind his boss’s back, and George fruitlessly attempted to look past the broad but rapidly thinning shoulders. “There’s no other way, son,” Duncan said.
Shaken, George blinked several times before giving a tiny nod and retreating.
The pop of Blaire’s thumb dislocating was muffled by her head hitting the metal headrest. Duncan greeted her pain with a trembling, toothy grin, confirming the greatest of Blaire’s present fears. He was turning.
“I wish you could appreciate this second chance,” Duncan said, resuming pacing. Blaire squeezed out of the cuff, grimacing.
“Eupepsid stopped being profitable the moment everyone was dosed.”
The joint sliding back into place was just as agonizing, but she managed it more quietly.
“Now, with these pepsies,” he said with ironic repulsion, “there’s new demand.”
Surreptitiously grabbing a scalpel off the tray beside her, Blaire positioned it in her palm, then rested her arm on top of the restraint. It wasn’t perfect, but if he was close enough to notice, he was close enough to cut.
“You, my friend, just handed me the supply.” Duncan stalked toward her. “Rather, your mother did.”
Just a little closer…
“I didn’t even have to ask! Clementine… what a stupid name… she just handed her over.”
Duncan was almost within striking distance when a Hispanic man in tactical gear rushed through the door without preamble.
“Boss, two of the pepsies got loose. I took ’em out, but they got Ike,” he said without glancing her direction.
Duncan snapped through clenched, grinding teeth, “Dammit, Jose! Where is the girl?”
Blanching, the guard replied, “Gone. I did a quick sweep, but no dice. I don’t know where she is, sir.”
Tearing around Blaire and pushing past the deflated guard, Duncan snorted, “I do.”
He could hear the helicopter blades before slamming through the roof access doors with his singular security detail at his heels. Allison was strapped into the same seat she’d arrived in while George was behind the pilot, pointing a jet injection gun at his temple.
Duncan jumped on the skid, threw open the door, and hauled George out by the neck like a disobedient puppy. With preternatural strength, he lifted his lead technician by the throat.
“That’s MY property!” Duncan screamed wildly.
“STOP!” Allison cried, hastily exiting the craft. “He can make your drug!”
The iron grip only tightened; George’s lips purpled. “I don’t need him.”
“But you need me!” she countered. “Let him go! I’ll stay.”
With all the energy he could muster, George feebly shook his head.
“I’m going to drain you dry!” Duncan yelled maniacally.
Allison’s heart-shaped face transformed from pallid fear to open-mouthed astonishment. Duncan felt a rush of excitement but then realized she was looking past him. Whirling around, he flung George’s torpid body away in time to see a tiny, bloody woman running headlong at him, ashen blond hair trailing behind her.
Just as he registered that it wasn’t a pepsie, Blaire was on him, slashing. He grabbed her tiny waist, lifted her like a dance partner, and slammed her into the concrete with a powerdrive maneuver.
As he was deciding whether to kick her ribs or stomp her skull, his useless bodyguard shouted from the now-silenced aircraft. “Boss, you’ll wanna take this!”
Severely annoyed, dabbing at his seeping face, Duncan strode to the two men gathered around their walkie-talkies in the cockpit. If this isn’t good, I’m going to kill them. He thought without an ounce of hyperbole.
“It’s the wall,” the pilot said, referring to the heavily-manned perimeter surrounding what was left of the city.
“What?” he bit into the receiver.
“Daedalus, there’s an old Black lady here claiming she’s Dr. Blaire Carter’s mom,” the crackling voice said incredulously. “Says she has some kinda cure?”
“Send her to the roof.”
Moments later, Clementine Carter emerged through the double doors to a bizarre tableau. The daughter-in-law she thought dead was battered but alive, huddled with Allison and a sandy-haired man in front of the helicopter that portended her recent troubles. Still, the most jarring sight was the emaciated face of the bastard responsible for it all.
“You’re all out of sorts, love. It's the turning,” Clem unashamedly grovelled, ignoring the impulse to grab her children and flee. “Thank goodness, I’m not too late. Whatever Blaire did to Allison, she did before we knew people would turn into demons. She left the real cure for the change with me months ago.”
The elderly woman pulled a small glass bulb atomizer from her dress pocket the moment she saw Duncan’s resolve to protest falter.
“Let me save you,” she continued, “so you can save the world.”
After some thought, he pointed a bony finger at Blaire, “Her first.”
Clem guided her rumpled daughter away from the odd collection of prisoners and predators, stood the tired woman up, and after receiving an almost imperceptible nod, squeezed the bulb. Nothing happened, save for Blaire’s concerted efforts to remain standing.
Duncan coasted through graduate school on his father’s bribes, whereas Blaire excelled because of her brilliance. Satisfied, he crossed the roof to stand beside the only person he’d ever been jealous of and beckoned Clem to spray.
This time, the effects came on subtly but immediately. Duncan’s gaunt, hollowed cheeks began to soften. The bulging eyes recessed as his sockets filled out. His twitching jaw stilled. Even those a short distance away were watching in amazement, but none more intently than Clementine.
“He isn’t going to die,” Blaire raspily directed to her late husband, Emerson’s, beneficent mother.
“How are you speaking?!” Duncan screamed, turning a vivid crimson. “I personally cut that lying tongue ou—“
Blaire reared back and kicked him square in the diaphragm. The air wheezed out of his lungs as he vaulted backward over the ledge, falling in silence the entire 62 stories.
Allison slammed into her mother’s arms, clasping her formidably before recalling the sight of her back hitting the concrete. Pushing away to assess the pain she must have caused, Allison sighed in relief at Blaire’s placid, smiling face.
Pulling her little girl back into her embrace, “I’m fine, darling. That spray tricks the brain into producing stem cells. Pepsies die because it overcorrects and layers too many new cells around their neurons. Duncan hadn’t fully turned yet, so it wouldn’t have hurt him, just paused his transition. As for us regular folks, it makes for quick healing.”
Dragging her mother-in-law into the hug, “Clem, you hadn’t noticed you're not limping?”
Flexing her leg, she responded with surprise, “I didn’t, no. Too much going on, I guess.”
Duncan’s men and George gathered around.
“With the regeneration formula and the antiviral in Allison’s blood, we can find a way to fix this mess; stop people from turning, without sacrificing their ability to conserve food." She appealed directly to George, "Will you help me?”
Feeling miraculously restored, having walked through the lingering mist, George solemnly bowed his head in affirmation.
“Am I going to have trouble with you two?” Blaire asked the helicopter operator and the henchman.
“I’m Juan. We're at your service,” said the guard. The pilot nodded.
“I’m Kenny. That guy was an asshole,” said the pilot. The guard nodded.
And so, despite a world in chaos, their individual tribulations, and the myriad atrocities they’d each witnessed, the tenuous assemblage descended the roof smiling.
About the author
Sophia Partlow is a marketing and communications professional with an intrinsic love of science-fiction. Her writing routinely centers around black protagonists and weaves in timely issues to normalize lived experiences of her characters.